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Four Ways to Be an Upstander at Your Workplace


Ama Karikari-Yawson

Milestales Publishing and Education Consulting

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are topics that have been trending and continue to trend because of the ascendancy of the Black Lives Matter, Me Too, Stop Asian Hate, and LGBTQIA civil rights movements. Sadly, horrifying events such as the murders of unarmed Black people, including George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and Jacob Blake; the March 2021 shooting spree that targeted Asian Americans in Atlanta; the continued fatal violence against trans and gender-nonconforming individuals; and the never-ending revelations of sexual misconduct demonstrate the seemingly overwhelming amount of work that still needs to be done in order to foster a society in which people are able to be safe and flourish regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. This abrasive social climate may make a person feel overwhelmed and powerless.

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

—Alice Walker

However, Alice Walker reminds us that the most common way people give up their power is by believing that they don’t have any. All of us have a degree of power with respect to impacting diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging at our workplaces and in our personal lives. The key to tapping into that power is claiming our identities as upstanders and not passive bystanders.

The term bystander effect was coined in the 1960s after the famous Kitty Genovese case in which a young secretary and bar manager was robbed, stabbed, raped, and murdered in Queens, New York. Shortly after the incident, the New York Times printed an article titled “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.” The article, which was later heavily criticized, stated that dozens of neighbors witnessed the murder but did nothing to help. Many psychologists then studied the type of phenomenon in which multiple people can witness a crime and none or few of the witnesses step up to help.

According to researchers Bibb Litané and John Darley, when many people witness a crime, the fact that responsibility is inherently shared among many individuals allows each particular person to feel as if it is not up to them to do anything. Moreover, when a crowd witnesses a crime and no individuals seem to look alarmed, others in the group gauge the severity of the situation through the reactions or non-reactions of others and think that nothing notable is happening. Additionally, bystanders may assume that someone else has already sought help or has done something about the crime.

Subtle “crimes” surrounding diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging happen every day, and many who witness these wrongdoings are passive bystanders. The “crime” could be the telling of a racist or sexist joke. It could be the use of a racial pejorative. In a workplace setting, it could be the elimination of certain diverse candidates because the applicant of a different race, ethnicity, or gender does not “fit.” It may also consist of a leader neglecting to invite certain diverse coworkers to meetings and events.

In these situations, I encourage people who genuinely advocate for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging to become upstanders. An upstander is the opposite of a bystander. When a bullying incident or microaggression is being committed, an upstander speaks or acts in support of and often on behalf of the person or group of people who are being bullied, attacked, demeaned, excluded, or diminished. In many of these cases, the upstander speaks up when the victims are not able to defend or advocate for themselves. In fact, the target may not even know that the harm is being committed. Just as a thief can rob an individual without the victim knowing it as others look on, a harm with respect to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging can easily happen without the recipient of that harm being aware. An upstander prevents, corrects, or reveals the wrong instead of standing idly by.

Below are four common workplace situations in which you can become an upstander.

 1. During Recurring Meetings, Stand Up for the Candidate Who Does Not “Fit”

Organizations recognize that recruiting is crucial for developing a talent pipeline and ultimately ensuring longevity and success. Although most organizations claim to hire based on candidates’ qualifications, there are often other less tangible criteria such as “fit.” People who engage in recruiting interviews are often asked to opine on whether a candidate fits culturally. Someone might ask, “Would you like to have a beer with the candidate?” or “How would you feel if you were stuck at the airport with the candidate?” Very often, candidates that differ from the majority of current employees with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation are deemed to not “fit.”

The next time that you are in a meeting in which a qualified candidate is being eliminated for not “fitting,” consider being an upstander and speaking up for that candidate by emphasizing that the candidate is qualified and that recruiting people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives will enable the organization to better serve diverse clients, customers, and benefactors.

 2. Consider Diversity When Engaging in Company Policy Discussions

You may be in a position to influence your company’s policies surrounding parental leave, bereavement days, gender-neutral bathrooms, and much more. Even if you do not work in human resources, you may be called upon to share your thoughts about such policies. When doing so, please consider issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

Would a candidate who is interested in starting a family find your company’s parental leave policies suitable? Would a nursing parent have a comfortable place to pump breast milk? Would a person who is differently abled be accommodated? Would an individual who identifies as nonbinary be able to use the bathroom comfortably? These are all questions that diversity upstanders should consider. When such issues are being discussed, are you a bystander who just follows the flow of the conversation? Or are you an upstander who brings new viewpoints to the forefront of the conversation, even when members of the most impacted groups do not feel comfortable speaking up in that moment for fear of appearing as if they are asking for special favors or better treatment?

 3. Speak Up When Microaggressions Occur

Microaggressions are everyday verbal, symbolic, or gestural assaults, insults, and invalidations reflecting prejudice, stereotypes, and lack of cultural sensitivity that denigrate their victims. Most of us have witnessed microaggressions. We may have witnessed it when a homophobic or racist joke was uttered in our presence. Alternately, we may have heard pejorative terms like the n-word, c-word, or fa**** slip from someone’s mouth. Or it could have been a negative comment about a Black woman’s natural hair. These situations are often jarring when they occur, and we may feel paralyzed in the moment. When we witness such incidents, it is hard to know what to do or say. We may think that letting it go is the best course of action so that we do not appear to be too sensitive or too serious.

However, microaggressions are serious matters. A recent study by the Center for Talent Innovation revealed that more than a third of Black professionals surveyed intend to leave their companies within two years to escape toxic work environments that are laden with microaggressions.

Even if we choose not to say something in the moment because we need time to process the issue, we can speak up later by asking the target of the microaggression how they are feeling and validating those feelings. Additionally, we can tell the perpetrator of the microaggression that what they said or did was uncalled for, inappropriate, and wrong. Speaking to an ombudsman, human resources manager, and/or diversity director about the incident are also options to consider.

 4. Include When There Is a Threat of Exclusion

Very often, diverse individuals are being excluded without even knowing that they are being left out. Decisions are often made at meetings that are not publicized. Networking often happens at informal events. In some cases, the exclusion is intentional. But it many cases, it is an oversight. You can be an upstander by simply suggesting that an individual be invited to a meeting or taking the liberty to extend the invitation yourself. Moreover, you can subtly shift the conversation so that all members are included and can contribute to discussions.

These are small acts. However, they can go a long way with respect to making sure that organizations foster diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

For more information about identifying bias, discrimination, and microaggressions in the workplace and upstander intervention techniques, check out Ama’s Bystander Intervention in the Legal Environment program, available from PLI Programs On Demand.

Ama Karikari-Yawson, Esq. is a Diversity Trainer and Consultant and founder of Milestales, a publishing, training, and consulting firm that provides books, diversity audits, diversity training programs, and other customized services to law firms, corporations, universities, and schools.


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